Identifying Katrina’s Victims
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GWEN IFILL: The images are impossible to forget: Bodies of those who perished in Hurricane Katrina, floating aimlessly in the fetid Louisiana floodwaters, abandoned to horizon. Rescue and recovery teams found many more behind closed doors, in houses, hospitals, and nursing homes, marking buildings to indicate the locations of the dead and the injured.
Four months after the storm decimated much of the city, nearly 1100 bodies have been recovered, nearly half of the dead were white, half were black, and most of them were elderly.
And while the search for bodies in Louisiana was officially called off on Oct. 3, emergency workers and residents returning to their devastated homes, continued to find corpses. More than 200 bodies have still not been identified, some so badly decomposed it will take DNA testing to determine who they are. Roughly 150 of the bodies identified remain unclaimed. Many more appear still to be missing.
GWEN IFILL: Now for more we turn to the reporter who has been covering this angle of the story for the past months, Robert Travis Scott, Baton Rouge bureau chief for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Welcome.
ROBERT TRAVIS SCOTT: Thank you, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: Welcome. We’ve been hearing about these numbers, these casualty numbers, and it’s unclear how firm they are. What can you tell us?
ROBERT TRAVIS SCOTT: Well, this has been an extremely challenging exercise for officials who are trying to identify all of these bodies that they found.
The problem is, a lot of them who died, they can’t find their relatives because so many people had to evacuate from the New Orleans area. And you had a number of people who died that had no distinguishing characteristics that they can identify as a particular individual at this time.
A number of these people were so-called “floaters,” to use a very gruesome term that mortuary people use. They were in the water for a long period of time, and, unfortunately, they were just unable to even tell sex and race of some of these people in the early stages of examination.
The whole catastrophe really speaks to the nature of what this disaster was. It was a flood. It wasn’t the first rush of the hurricane that came in so much as the breaking of many levee walls in the New Orleans area leading to a flood that a lot of people just didn’t expect.
And what you ended up with is people who chose to stay in the area were stranded. They died maybe from the very difficult conditions in the heat, or they died simply because of the rising waters. And then when it came time to try to find their relatives, their relatives, too, were evacuated from the area, and officials have had a very difficult time tracking those people down.
GWEN IFILL: We have gotten all too used to figuring out ways to chronicle disaster in this country. As a reporter who has been on this story, how have you been trying to track down the names, the faces, the stories of these people?
ROBERT TRAVIS SCOTT: Well, this has been an incredible story because so many of these people are in so many different locations throughout the United States. So I’ve talked both to families who have been very frustrated trying to find where their loved ones are, not knowing if they’re missing, wondering whether they’re in the official morgue that is set up here.
I’ve talked to a lot of state officials, and I have seen the terrible challenges that they have in trying to track down and make some of these identifications.
I’ll give you an example. I talked to a dentist, Dr. Douglas Cross, whose own home was destroyed in the flood, and he’s now participating, trying to help find dental records of the people before they died, and then match them with the dental records of the bodies that they have in the mortuary that they still haven’t identified.
Well, just picture how difficult this is: These dentist offices in the New Orleans area, many of them were flooded, and when they go in to try to find the records, they have to find someone to unlock the building. Once they get inside, the records are completely ruined, or nearly ruined. They’ve been many times filled with water and they have to use crow bars to get the paper records out.
And then they have to find some way of finding the correct record and then making a really good image of that dental record so that they can match it. This is going on in a very painstaking way day after day by Dr. Cross and many of these other people who are trying to make the matches. The other matches they’re trying to make are DNA — go ahead.
GWEN IFILL: I want to get to that, but I’m curious how much of this has to do with, perhaps, federal, state, local bureaucratic bungling or delay.
ROBERT TRAVIS SCOTT: Well, I think you’d have to attribute a substantial amount of the problem here to the nature of this catastrophe. And the fact that the system that is set up for trying to identify families and matching them up was really created for a 9/11-type disaster or an airplane crash in which you were fairly sure you knew who the victims were, and you were fairly confident you could find the relatives.
But setting that aside, there were a lot of problems on the state and federal level in pulling this operation off. You had a lot of criticism from the company that was hired to actually pick up the bodies in the early weeks. We had bodies that were out in the streets for weeks before they were picked up.
And there was a lot of complaints by the company that was performing that operation about how — what a quagmire of bureaucracy they were facing with the federal government.
At the same time, on the state level, I talked to a number of families who were just in agony trying to get their loved ones’ bodies out of the state and federal morgue that they operate here to process these bodies.
In some cases, we had examples of people who were in the special D Morgue facility for over two months, and the family knew they were there. They had been identified, but they still were not released. So there was a lot of added frustrations.
GWEN IFILL: You mentioned earlier the DNA identification. Is that what it’s come down now to, four months later?
ROBERT TRAVIS SCOTT: Yeah, four months later, we’re really faced with maybe trying to match some more departmental records, maybe trying match some DNA. And think of how difficult this is: You have to find relatives who are close enough linked biologically to the victim — who you think might be the victim — and get them to come in, get a DNA swab, process that, and then try to match it.
And then it’s really a game of math to try to figure out what the odds are that that person is really who they think it is. You see, one of the problems we had in this storm, Gwen, is that a lot of people who died did not die at home. They died somewhere else.
They left home, they maybe went to a relative’s house to try to weather the storm, or maybe they tried to make it to an evacuation center. And so they were found all over. It would have been a lot easier if they had, you know, all simply died in their own home.
GWEN IFILL: Do we have any idea all this time later also how many people are still missing?
ROBERT TRAVIS SCOTT: That’s another extraordinary story. There have been about 12,000 documented cases of people missing from Hurricane Katrina in both Louisiana and in Mississippi.
Remarkably, they have found all but about 3700 of those. Now, you might say that 3700 missing people sounds like a lot. Officials here believe that a lot of those people on the so-called “missing list” are people who have in fact been found by relatives, and the relatives just haven’t called in to follow up on their missing person’s report to let them know.
So they’re calling out for them. They are still getting reports, sometimes 20 and 30 a day, of people who relatives say are missing. They can’t find them. But keep in mind everybody is spread out outside of the New Orleans area, either in the suburban areas or in other parts of Louisiana, or around the country. And they’re having trouble locating each other.
So there is a substantial facility here in Baton Rouge that is working with phone banks and Internet detectives, and DNA specialists, trying to make all of these links and bring all these people back together.
GWEN IFILL: Robert Travis Scott of the New Orleans Times Picayune, thanks so much for all your work.
ROBERT TRAVIS SCOTT: Thank you, Gwen.